Hours out of a library
The old Carnegie Library on Holdenhurst Road served a grid of short streets of 1920s semi-detached houses, cheap and retrograde when my parents moved there in the late 1980s. Its red-brick front was stuffed between a failing office furniture showroom and a derelict old Scout Hall, the stairs in its entrance hall lead up to function rooms and offices that were now barred from use. Entering the library, there was a massive oak table next to the issue desk where guys with bandaged legs seeping strange odours would read the papers. There were spinners with alphabetically filed horror novels, thrillers and Mills and Boon volumes. Turning the corner, the children and teen’s section took up more than half the floorspace. Wooden boxes of picture books doubled as seats, while a little round table occupied the corner near the teen books. At the weekend, when my parents started taking me when I was around 7 or 8, there were only a few toddlers. During the week, it was so quiet the staff refrained from speaking above a whisper.
My parents read to me from early on and I learned to read – from the requisite Ladybird books – quite young. In reception and Year 1 I raced through the book-boxes of ascending difficulty. But nothing really held my attention like the first, remarkable children’s books I went through before reaching pre-school. TV’s streams of primary colours, songs and contests of will – bad enough when there were only 4 channels and only about 5 hours of kids’ programming a day – filled the void that no printed successor to The Tiger Who Came to Tea, The Tale of Peter Rabbit and The Very Hungry Caterpillar had managed to occupy. In a real sense, the books weren’t the point of the library: it was somewhere that was warm and indoors – already I had the aversion to cold and fresh air of a much more fragile child – that wasn’t home or school, where I didn’t have any particular compulsions or time restrictions. The books I had at home were primarily fodder for solitary play in our half-concreted back garden – themes taken from Greek myth, the Aztecs and the lives of Pacific Northwest Indians, or as inferior substitutes for Knightmare, GamesMaster and reruns of Wacky Races.
There was, in this situation of a lack of will or direction, something about reading narrative that was cringe: you had to choose and then work your way through material that didn’t just lay itself out as facts, that created an explicit pathway through phenomena that appeared to me as a resistance, an anti-plasticity, that it wasn’t worth my while to overcome. (This is the very thing Barthes calls “the readerly”, that mode of textual offering that guides the reader easily through its thickets.) The library’s fund of stories for kids my age were at once condescending and charmless; they lacked the extraordinary simplicity, mystery and vividness of my early children’s books, replacing it with a psychological “depth” and overelaborated events that seemed annoying at best, fraudulent at worst. There were periods where I tried to convince myself and, more importantly, my parents that I liked books. For, particularly in the 90s, with their recurrent media panics about the effect of television on kids, I knew I was supposed to – that making the minimal effort to visualise something described in prose was somehow morally superior, affirming of psychic autonomy, than just seeing the same thing on “the idiot box”.
This is where the library came in – but not necessarily in a good way. I trooped down there each week, but the usual transitional objects of late-infant literacy passed me by. No Narnia or Harry Potter, which bored me after one attempt; no Flashman or H Rider Haggard, which required an a priori belief that yarns could be ripping; no hard SF or fantasy, although I finished Lord Of The Rings, slowly boring through its samey texture; no so-called “YA”, which hadn’t yet been invented as an intellectual pacifier for 40-year-olds to suck. This may have been pure chance: if I’d encountered Stephen King or Harry Harrison I could have become a different type of unbearable adult. But the actual spur was, I had no friends in secondary school and the school library was the only place to read N64 Magazine in peace. It got worse from there. The constant verbal tearing and prodding of an all-boys’ school didn’t leave me even at home, and despite my parents’ occasional counsel I wasn’t in any position to “stand up for myself”. The often suicidal depression I spent much of the next 7 years in was partly belated self-defence: if I could concentrate into myself anguish, inertia and a sense of absolute frozen enclosure, then they couldn’t do anything worse to me. Imagining myself dead or mutilated or disappeared was a way of making concrete the unfreedom I felt in an early adulthood I was completely unequipped for.
Books helped, finally: Orwell, Henry Miller, Nietzsche, Camus, Plath all provided material that could be interpreted as outlining “the human condition” in the blackest of terms. Adolescent romanticism – seul contre tout, the longing for an inexistent tenderness that would shatter all tension – follows. Reading finally gave me the sense that I was doing something, mining massive veins of speculative material, repositories of phrasal sonority, image, concept, argument, I never knew existed. That itself seemed to carry a politics beyond the usually “left-wing” content of what I read: the discourse of “freedom” was confined to my bedroom or the library, but it was there, expanding through capacities, experiences and histories. Such freedom was the hole at the centre of a negative theology, the library its shrine. That entwinement of reading and self-mutilation was crystallised, of course, in Manic Street Preachers’ The Holy Bible, whose title commemorates this Protestant coincidence of individual literacy and the truth of salvation, now inverted into the icy finality of suicide. I was now going to the new plate-glass library in the town centre, though, and there was always something else I hadn’t read, so death was each time handily postponed.
The fact is that I can’t think much about the everyday detail of those years – my bedroom carpet, my shelves, my old CRT computer monitor, the route to school that took me in the opposite direction to the library from which I’d borrowed books on naval dreadnoughts – because the sadness, hopelessness, humiliation and regret are so potent, like the toxic brews that shamans drink to journey to the spirit plane. It settles down in my bones like a chill. Theory as prophylactic: holding life at a blurring distance – Casaubon peering at the world from the fastness of his library – while making certain aspects of it sharper. For it was books, too, that got me out of the worst of clinical misery, but only by the enactment of another repression, turning my most violent feelings into the project of a socialist Jordan Peterson – cleaning the room of the mind. Self-improvement, political militancy, teetotalism, a book a week: a broader mind, greater powers of rational moderation, lures and snares kept at bay. Not much later, I’d come across Adorno’s warning against those “wrestlers with difficulties”, who “have after all a reliable armoury at their disposal, and the ready use they make of it gives the lie to their struggle with the angel”. Nietzsche and even anarchism provided handy resources that worked against the interpretations and theories of ontology I’d cobbled together from them in the first place.
If reading offered a mental space of inviting capaciousness, one in which I could escape the claims of real work – it was, I guess, enjoyable, and must be important if I spent hours doing it – then the library offered a social space similarly free of agitating objects. Quiet was an active element, one that crowded out any instrumental purpose, the books in their Dewey order, organised but producing surprises in the stock’s particulars, waiting only to be perused, in no hurry to be used. Particularly on weekdays, there was hardly a woman to be seen apart from harmless spinsters and retired council administrators. There was plenty of space in which to post up, spread before me a selected stack, and perhaps get up and wander to find more. Writing could thus migrate out of its context from my teenage years – staying up until 3am in a dank bedroom, browsing through back issues of Mojo and hoping inspiration would strike – into a space in which life could be held in suspended animation, slowed to an unmoving pulse, where nothing was demanded of me, only that I return or renew my items on time. Constraint only appeared in the form of regret as I returned from the library, wondering why exactly I’d written nothing of substance. But its temporality relied on a deferral dear to the procrastinator: I can’t really write about x until I’ve read y; if y turns out to be difficult or unproductive, I should read something else as a diversion. The ending that makes aesthetic form or theory possible – closure, or at least funneling of possibilities – recedes continually.
Thus reading could and should go on even as its returns steadily diminished. I raced through swathes of natural history, music writing, “classic” novels, literary letters, travelogues, diaries, with a few dashes of “critical theory” to season my occasional productions. (Years later, I’d find a diagnosis of this in Cyril Connolly’s notion of “the book-bed-bath defence system”, the self-reinforcing round of comfort that whisked him away whenever he arrived on the threshold of having to do actual work.) On arriving at university, the long blonde wood desks of the 3rd floor, dating from the library’s original mid-60s design, projected an idea of parallel and sympathetic work without community. The faded beige-brown carpet, like that of a provincial pub, sucked up any remaining romance even as the tall windows magnified the liquid October sun. A space of illusion that can persist precisely because no resolution to its ambient narrative beckons, save that of formal education itself. That I had, with growing fear and disgust, whenever it was nearly full to trudge to the fifth floor with the sociologists (quelle horreur!) or feel my head shredded by conversations suggested that libraries weren’t, for me, really to be used.
Anyway, the additive method seemed fine, even as I started working on a first book project collaged out of scraps of theory and popular non-fiction (punk, millenarianism, hauntology, nature mysticism, histories of the vaguest forms of “social revolt”). It was only when it petered out, in the period between leaving and starting an MA at an institution with an even less prestigious library, that it started to seem reading wasn’t the problem. It was what reading was in writing as a holistic, experienced process: as anaesthetic, a substitute for the nerve-shredding task of living, a replicable and sanctioned nonbeing. I could manage 3000-7000 word jolts of intellectual rub-and-tug, but nothing more sustained. (Little did I know such quick-fading pops of thinking would soon be celebrated under such proper names as “Maggie Nelson” and “Joanna Walsh”.) If reading, as innumerable dullards tell us, prepares various forms of textual space – the white space of the page, the paratextual thresholds, the imaginative space of narrative that ghosts the reader’s actual suspended position in their bourgeois easy chair – then the library was a space in which those spatial states could be preserved like architecture itself, one of simultaneous retreat from and interpenetration with a world whose uncontrollable presence set my nerves on fire.
But the antinomic values I was trapped by were just a perverse version of those arising from the history of libraries as a modern institution. They were a key protection for the fantasy – one that was more than just ideology – of the reflective private subject sutured into the public sphere. I could entertain an image of myself as part of a lineage of self-educated workers for whom literacy had been the twin of politics. Like all such symptomatic neurotic images, it had a generative use, until it didn’t. Even now, writing these rather too placid, ironising clauses about a past it stings to remember, I intuit some wilder texture and conceptual impulse in the gorged material of those years, to let loose in the essay like a snake through the grass. For the ambitions and imaginative apertures that came to constitute “writing” were nurtured by the library, given time and respite, as much as the narcotic constraints that accompanied them.
Their relationship with class, and particularly with the political imaginations animated in class revolt, was deeply ambiguous. The library, after all, had been at the same time one of the great social institutions in the production and management of mediocrity and boredom. Alongside the chain subscription library, the municipal lending library was one of literary modernism’s figures of fear, doling out standard-issue narrative indiscriminately with paperback editions of Plato and Homer to workers who didn’t have the background, sense and taste to make use of them. Insensibility, stupidity, standardisation were embodied in the middlebrow, flatly repeating phrases he read in The Times or Edmund Gosse, while changing his HG Wells for Arnold Bennett. In the library, books were as denatured, contained and levelled as tinned food, LCC housing and the ribbons of the new motorways. Knowledge, that motor-concept of vulgar Marxist epistemology, contained its own limiting mechanisms for the unintended political by-products of mass literacy. The conditions of industrial society that Fabians and populists pamphleteered over, the relations of production that, once known, should have metastasised the growing body of the workers’ movement, could be just contained in the institutional politics of “civil society”. While modernity drained away enchantment from everyday life, the pharmakon of mass-produced narrative could fill the lack, a space that fulfilled liberal politics’ own fantasies about the “public sphere”. Perhaps at the end of the 20th century, between the defeat of the miners and New Labour’s political hegemony, that function was the only one left. “The libraries gave us power / Then work came and made us free.”
The library thus reflected the vagueness, the cloudy detail, of class as expressed in social forms rather than as the sociological ideal-types that “class-first” socialists cherish. My parents had come from one of those muddied social fractions Britain’s class structure is full of: not firmly part of the rural petit bourgeois, but certainly not among the farm labourers who propped up the now purely industrialised farmers. My dad aced his engineering course at the local poly, but no-one in my family had gone on to university. When they had the chance to raise children, they knew they wanted a different set of opportunities, knew that education and books were important and enriching – but in what way exactly I don’t think they were ever quite sure. Bournemouth itself was a middling place, neither a county town nor a seaside resort nor a retirement settlement nor a university city. Springbourne was nominally a residential area but mostly on the route to somewhere else, between Boscombe and the town centre. This lack of clarity was ahead of the curve. The new white-collar roles that were coming to constitute the only existing “skilled labour” didn’t require anything in particular, yet needed a lot of vague qualities that no state school taught. British cities, which New Labour imagined as a thousand new Bilbaos, began to fill up with non-places. The new or renovated library was a centrepiece of “regeneration” plans that revolved around “third spaces” where non-specific “knowledge” activity – a deferral of modern temporalities of the “productive” – would generate the unanticipated – though those very novelties would need, in the calculus of Arts Council funding and social enterprise, to immediately produce “impact”. As with the British education system, it relied for its outcomes on autonomous capacities whose actual nurturing was, at best, a liability.
The importance of the library for what remains of basic civic functions increases as, in the jumbled guise of “idea stores”, its romance fizzles out. The fate of Birmingham Central Library marked perhaps a symbolic turning-point: one of the most remarkable post-war British buildings, an inverted ziggurat of books whose interior formed a transparent but ordered space for reading and wandering, demolished for an eclectic metallic wedding cake, collapsing a whole set of functions into one, whose massive costs necessitated shuttering local libraries. Now, for all the heavy-handed book imagery built into its fabric, it’s a place for teens to revise and jobseekers to be sent for internet access.
My local library where I now live, run by volunteers, is open a few days a week, while the central library, in an excellent and underused Art Deco building, closes as soon as I leave work. So I’m nostalgic for the days I had room and time to work – even for the more salubrious academic libraries I used as venues for worry. Should I be? An anthropology of “literary” social media reveals contradictory impulses at work. Reading, books and libraries appear – particularly in the hands of less discerning posters, who haven’t quite got the personal branding down – as inherently virtuous and enriching in humanist terms. The library, slightly less so than the old-fashioned bookshop beloved of “Booktok”, forms a curated space in which the literary subject in turn comes to exercise their power of self-curation. Fitzcarraldo Editions tote bag in hand, Veja-shod, perching at the preferably antique and picturesque desk with an interesting stack, writing as serious work constellates them. It acts as the nature mortes to the tableaux vivantes of literary parties or gallery visits in one’s Instagram stories. This self-fashioning that erases its origins into a permanent present of muted display is the less honest counterpart to “dark academia”, where, in the absence of the library itself, the denizens of the technical colleges to which even the most prestigious contemporary universities are reduced reanimate a peculiarly mixed, ambiguous, middling class fantasy: the book and its space, darkness and solidity, interiority as ambience, arranged in the constellations of the starter pack, as a last remnant of the metaphysics of presence. The mystery that gathered round those pages from my childhood hovers somewhere nearby, unrealised and unhomed – the same that Benjamin glimpsed in the “painted sky of summer” that covered the “dreamy, unlit ceiling” of the reading room in the old Bibliotheque Nationale. And the fantasy’s fleeting, dialectical counterpart, the claim in the closing moments of Sans Soleil, that “poetry will be made by everyone”.